Russia released WNBA superstar Brittney Griner in a stunning high-level prisoner swap on Thursday, with the US freeing notorious Russian weapons dealer Viktor Bout, according to American and Russian authorities. The trade, which occurred during a period of increased tension over Ukraine, accomplished a key aim for President Biden, but it came at a high cost — and left one American imprisoned in Russia for over four years.
The agreement, the second within eight months with Russia, resulted in the release of the most notable American held overseas. Griner is a two-time Olympian gold medallist whose months-long detention on drug allegations drew unparalleled attention to the community of unjustly detained people.
Biden’s approval to release a Russian felon dubbed “the Merchant of Death” highlighted the mounting pressure on his government to bring Griner home, especially given the recent completion of her criminal case and subsequent relocation to a prison camp.
The swap was verified by US officials with actual knowledge of the deliberations who were not permitted to discuss the agreement publicly before a White House statement and spoke on the terms of anonymity. Biden called Griner when her wife, Cherelle, was there in the Oval Office on Thursday. The president was scheduled to speak to media later in the morning.
“I just spoke with Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is boarding a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said on Twitter.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also verified the transfer, saying in a statement reported by Russian news outlets that it took place at Abu Dhabi and the Bout was flown home.
After months of tense deliberations, Russian and US officials have expressed guarded optimism in recent weeks, with Biden indicating in Nov. that he was optimistic that Russia would cooperate in a settlement now that the midterms were over. A senior Russian official stated last week that an agreement may be reached by the end of the year.
Even though, the fact that the agreement was a one-for-one exchange came as a surprise considering that US officials had been communicating their determination for months to bring both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan company’s security executive imprisoned in Russia since Dec. 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the United States gov.’t have said are baseless.
By releasing Bout, the United States had liberated an ex-Soviet Army lieutenant colonel characterized by the Justice Dept. as “one of the worlds largest most notorious arms dealers.” Bout, whose activities prompted a Hollywood film, was serving a 25-year sentence on allegations that he plotted to sell tens of millions of dollars in weaponry intended for use against Americans, according to US officials.
The Biden admin. was eventually willing to swap Bout for Griner’s freedom. The incarceration of one of the greatest athletes in WNBA history sparked extraordinary interest of the public in a single detainee case, not to forget significant pressure on the White House.